Valentine’s Day was a couple weeks ago now, so consider this a belated Valentine from The Geek Generation. The Iron Man 2 trailer that’s been running non-stop lately prominently features a sequence in which Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark cheekily solicits a smooch from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Pots. The moment is handled in a lightly comic way – as a throwaway moment – and probably shouldn’t be taken as an indication that a big romance is going to develop between the two in the movie.
That preview has helped me unlock one of the reasons I enjoyed the first Iron Man movie so much. Although he flirts with Paltrow and beds a female journalist early in the movie, there really isn’t an iron woman behind the man.
Look, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with super heroes finding romance – it happens in the comics all the time. The difference between the page and the screen is that comic book romances have months, even years to develop, whereas movies are stuck with trying to tell the story all at once. The romantic subplot is capable of throwing storytelling elements out of balance and causing the film as a whole to suffer. Here’s a rundown of the most prominent franchises from the last two decades:
The various loves of Bruce Wayne a.k.a. Batman:
Between Burton, Schumacher, and Nolan, I count six movies and four major love interests (I’m excluding the mild romantic subplots in Batman & Robin because really, who wants to discuss Batman & Robin?). I’ll give the Burton movies a pass, since Vicki Vale is used as the audience surrogate at the beginning of the movie, and Catwoman is a nice way of exploring the hero’s duality.
Then there is Chase Meridian in Batman Forever. Apparently the concept behind the character was, “Let’s put Nicole Kidman in lingerie and have her hit on Batman with groaning single entendres in every scene.” The Schumacher Batman movies were messes for a lot of reasons, but the presence of a wholly unnecessary romance in his first outing shouldn’t be ignored.
It took awhile, but eventually Christopher Nolan came along and rescued the Batman franchise. There’s a lot to like in Batman Begins, but the fact that Nolan did the EXACT SAME THING SCHUMACHER DID – namely, cast Tom Cruise’s current wife as a superfluous love interest. Katie Holmes’ Rachel Dawes is positioned as the character who truly inspires Bruce Wayne to take on the mantle of the bat because, y’know, seeing his parents killed in front of him apparently wasn’t enough. Then she becomes a damsel in distress because duh, even though you’re making a movie that everyone is going to credit with reinventing a genre, you still have to have a by-the-numbers damsel in distress sequence, right?
The lure of Rachel Dawes is so strong that it survived a casting change (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in the sequel, and also had Batman ready to quit the crime fighting business just to be with her. Apparently, Nolan’s conception of the Dark Knight is that he’s only devoted to fighting crime as long as it doesn’t cost him a shot at tail. I know the movie gives lip service to Batman-as-a-symbol-to-inspire-Harvey-Dent-and-blah-blah-blah, but come on – even Adam West wouldn’t have given up being the caped crusader that fast.
Fortunately, Rachel was killed off (in another damsel in distress scene) in The Dark Knight, so we don’t have to worry about her in the next movie. Apparently Catwoman’s back, so we’ll see how that works out.
Wolverine/Jean Grey; The X-Men movies
The attraction between Wolverine and Jean Grey comes directly from the comic books; the way it’s depicted in the two mediums is wildly inconsistent. In the source material, the romantic tension usually simmered just below the surface, rarely being dealt with overtly. In the movies, it’s pushed to center stage, which threatens to derail the first two films and is one of the myriad problems in the third.
One could argue that it would have been neglectful for the filmmakers to ignore this aspect of the X-Men mythology completely, but it does nothing to enhance the product on-screen. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine basically goes all Chase Meridian in any scene with Jean, who Famke Jansen plays as being offended but is not-so-secretly moved.
It’s a shame that Jean Grey is reduced to a prize for Wolverine and Scott Summers to compete over in the first two movies and then arbitrarily deployed in her Dark Phoenix persona in the third movie. Word is Bryan Singer is on board to make X-Men: First Class, so hopefully she’ll be put to better use.
Unfortunately, the character’s legacy is being the chick who made Wolverine cry when she pretend died at the end of the second X-Men movie, and then cry again when he for-real killed her at the end of the third movie. Apparently, someone thought that what the world really wanted was a Wolverine who cried a bunch and had feelings. Cuz that’s way more important than endless berserker furies, right?
Peter Parker/Mary Jane Watson; The Spider-Man movies
So… close. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy cast MJ as the unattainable girl next door with a lust for latex. She’s a classic damsel in distress in the first movie, which is fine – the movie gets there the right way.
The situation begins to sour in the second movie. While Kirsten Dunst is a better reason to give up being a super hero than Maggie Gyllenhal, we have another case of the hero getting back to business because of a chick, not because of the character’s classic motivation.
I mean, there’s the dream sequence/ghost encounter where P-squared tells Uncle Ben that, screw it, he isn’t going to be Spider-Man anymore, because he’d rather wear glasses and be in goofy montages. So that’s great and all until MJ gets in trouble, and then it’s back to web-slinging heroics.